"Cain, what is this?” Kurt said. "He's your sub, not a rentboy."
"But I want to show him off.”
Charles looked up from the landing and saw Erik dressed in a tunic so short that- Charles blushed and looked at his shoulders instead, but there the smudges of bruises were visible. Was it his imagination, or had Erik somehow thinned in the last few weeks? Surely that was the contour of bone, not muscle. Charles trailed his gaze toward Erik's face, but Erik had his head down.
"Get him dressed properly or neither of you will be joining us for dinner." Kurt's voice had risen. "And do something about his hair. Anyone would think you don't know how to be a proper dom. Where're the collar and the cuffs you extorted me to buy?
“And you!" The whimper, bitten off, made Charles look up again to see Kurt was squeezing Erik's jaw forcing him to look up. "You try to look more cheerful! Get that sour look off your face before I whip it off you. Do you understand? Don’t think I won’t return you to Shaw. Embarrassing, both of you." He shoved Erik at Cain, who staggered then raised his arm. The slap echoed. Kurt began shouting again.
Charles was halfway up the stairs just as Kurt began to stomp down them.
"Charles!" Kurt barked. "Isn't this enough of a farce already? Why are you dawdling? Get yourself to the front hall to greet the guests while I get your mother. Her five hours are up."
Charles didn't see Erik again until nearly all the guests have arrived, standing stiffly the required step behind Cain as the footman announced them. Erik was in the traditional conservative male sub-dress, the clothes still bearing its militaristic origins of defeat and surrender. The platinum shine of the collar sat over the high neck of a dark purple doublet enwrought with red threads, the delicate links of a chain trailed to the middle of his chest where it ended up in a small medal-like tag bearing Marko’s crest and Cain’s stylized initial. Around his waist was a red sash, bound tightly and the end left overlong so that he had to hold one end up to walk unimpeded. Over his wrists were the wide metallic cuffs, connected to the collar with chains so intricately wrought that they glittered under the lights.
“Is that your sub, Cain?" One of the ancient shrill creatures at these dinners made an appreciative sweep up an down Erik’s figure, lingering significantly where the form fitting soft knee high boots and trousers hugged his legs. "You look lovely, dear. Erik, is it? We've all been dying to see you. What carriage! You must be one of Shaw’s. Kurt always has a fine eye.” She turned to Kurt. “What about Charles? You didn't get Charles a sub?"
"Charles has plans after university. He plans to study, what is it, geriatrics?" Kurt gestured with the wine glass.
"Genetics," Charles said, staring at a long red scratch on the side of Erik’s face. There was a hint of makeup over it, but his lips were a little puffy and little too red in the bland smile he was offering the guests circling around him.
"More education? Whatever for? But then, you Xaviers have always been eccentric. Brilliant, of course, but eccentric. I suppose that’s why Brian never contracted a sub for you while you were younger. Are the universities still enforcing that ridiculous no sub rule?"
"They think it's distracting to study when there are subs among the student population. Also, apparently it goes against certain...principles,” Kurt said, looking slyly at Charles, as if he respected Charles opinions on the matter. Charles appreciated the acknowledgement though not so much the patronizing tone. Two and half more months, he reminded himself, just eleven weeks.
"Well, academics, what can you do?” Charles companion patted his arm as he accompanied her to the dinning room and took out the chair. “We should legislate something. All this modernism can’t be healthy for subs or doms. What would the young people do when it comes to the management and protection of marriage and family if they don’t get the practise in early? In my day, subs, spouse or bound, wouldn’t be sitting at dinner. We had them kneeling by the side and hand fed them. My Clara, bless her soul, refused to eat unless it was I who gave it to her from my plate. Of course, her father was poisoned. Ambassy balls in foreign climes, never trust them.”
“Not a bad idea,” Cain said, sitting down opposite, looked to his side with a gleam in his eye. “Erik does look wonderful on his knees.”
“A terrible bother I think,” Kurt said, “and damned unhygienic. They have hands. They should be able to feed themselves. God knows I’ve better things to do than to feed Sharon bite by bite a ten course meal.”
The conversation moved away. Subs' plates sat empty by their doms. Kurt was discreetly trying to convince Sharon to try an hors d'oeuvre before the wine start, then sighed and gestured for the servers to begin. He ordered a portion of soup for her, but she only took a single desultory sip until Kurt asked a question about her charity work, where she began to launch into a speech that was, in Charles’ private opinion, distracted and ill-informed, if well-meaning. Unfortunately, as the hostess, no one would interrupt her until it ended.
Cain began to fill up only his own plate. The napkin remained in its origami in front of Erik through the fish course. When Erik noticed that Charles was staring, he unfolded the napkin and laid it on his lap, but Cain still paid him no mind.
When Sharon finally finished her speech and those who felt affected expressed all their pathos, the other guests were finally allowed another topic.
It turned inevitably to politics and the new laws allowing subs in the military.
“Only those with no doms, of course, and only those free. Poor creatures, subjecting themselves to such misery, taking orders from anyone when they could stay home and be looked after by their doms.”
“Perhaps some subs like to make their own choices.” Charles said. The dark copper of Erik’s hair gleamed under the lights of the chandelier, but his face looked very pale against his dark clothes. “Not all subs live in comfort with their doms who consider their comfort and safety. Some beat them without reason, some starve them without consent until they faint from hunger.” He said the last while looking directly at his step-brother, making a meaningful sweep of his eyes toward the plate in front of Erik. The rest of the table followed his gaze.
"I say!" Cain finally looked up from cutting into his steak.
"Say what, Cain dear?” One of the woman said, watching like a vulture. It would be impolite to remark openly on other people’s private affairs, but gossip was blood to those at the table and anything Cain said would provide delightful salacious stories to be repeated and embellished through the summer garden parties.
Kurt was glaring, but not at Charles. Cain quelled under his father’s gaze. With no aftermath, the conversation drifted harmlessly away. When the next course came, there was food on Erik’s plate and Charles carefully did not look at Erik’s face.
Everyone was watching.
It was midnight by the time the party ended. Cain and other doms of his age were going to another one in the city. Charles declined the invite.
“Too high and mighty to mingle with us, he is,” Cain sneered before they stumbled off with the chauffeur, but the relief in his voice was palpable.
Sharon and Kurt were already settled for the night in the East wing of the house when Charles made his way to the other side of the West wing. He waited by the banister before he saw the familiar silhouette, but walking away from him,
"Erik," Charles called softly. Erik turned. He hadn’t changed from dinner. Even the collars and the cuffs were in place. Cain hadn’t unlocked them.
"Charles," Erik said quietly, The sash around his waist were tucked up instead of trailing on the ground. "I apologise. I didn’t see you. I was just-" He glanced at his wrists, brows furrowed.
“I should be the one who should apologise,” Charles said. “At dinner, I know I shouldn’t presume, but-” He bit his lip as Erik came closer then forced a smile, rueful. “I suppose you wouldn’t want to play tonight after that display.”
“It’s all right, Charles,” Erik said, then lowered his voice. “He didn’t ask, but Cain will be gone for the whole night.” He held out his arm like a dom, reckless. It was late, after all, all the servants were in bed. “Shall we, Mr. Xavier?”
Charles couldn’t help the smile as he took Erik’s hand and they went through the hallways made different by the dimmed lights, the shadow softening the hard angles and lines of the house.
In the library, the food was still warm under the covers. There were two sets of cutlery, two wine glasses, and a bottle breathing. Charles poured the wine, set the board, while Erik ate neatly and quickly, like a man who must eat while he could.
Is your face all right? Are you all right, Charles wanted to ask tonight and every night, but instead he asked: "White or black?"
Erik played black every time.
The game took all his concentration. Once, it had lasted from late evening into the early morning. Charles had been horrified when they were asked if breakfast should be brought in. Erik had grown ashen, but left without a word and returned the same evening walking with a leather collar so tight that it broke the breath of his sentences. “Cain just got in as well,” was all he said, but Charles was careful to set an alarm afterwards no matter how much he wished to Erik to stay.
Erik was a terrifyingly excellent player, but it was more than just chess. To stay and simply....talk. His research, the world, anything at all.
Charles told himself that being friends with a stepbrother’s bound sub, not even his spouse, was perfectly respectable. Perfectly respectable, too, to find him intelligent, to find him beautiful, to find him admirable while wishing to erase every visible bruise and every mark on his skin, to ease the awful loneliness of being Charles felt that echoed in himself. It was all, he told himself, mere human sympathy. And in his unkind, but no less truthful moments- sympathy between two alike in intelligence.
Still, he had never dared to ask Erik whether he was happy. He was not; there were shadows under his eyes that grew darker by the week even as the days grew longer; there were times where he walked so carefully that Charles wanted to challenge Cain for Erik.
Charles was a coward. He could not promise Erik anything. He was going away at the end of the summer. Charles was a dom by an accident of his birth; he did not believe in the right of doms over subs or the bondage of certain subs. He wanted the archaic system of bound subs abolished, but it was built and sustained by centuries of tradition and formalities and could not be dismantled in an instant without violence.
And there was already violence enough in Erik’s life. Charles could lose; Cain would not be kinder to Erik for it. Charles could win, but how could then face his own hypocrisy? A dom who challenged his own brother for a bound sub was a story that could’ve came from the last century.
Erik’s wrist was trembling as he lifted the bishop.
"You don't have to keep me company if you are tired."
"Are you dismissing me?" Erik quirked a smile. It came rarely. Charles treasured every one.
"No, I very much want you to stay, but if you're tired, I won't keep you."
"You can't, you mean." Erik said, smiling still. Charles wished he imagined the sadness at the corner of his mouth. "But I will stay. Sometimes I wish-"
The colour of Erik’s eyes shifted with the light. They seemed darker tonight.
"What?" Charles asked, softly, poised, waiting. Certain if Erik asked, he would be a hypocrite and worse. Erik understood him, surely, but then Erik looked away.
"I like the library the best in this house."
Nothing had happened. Charles, disappointed, pleased that Erik did not ask out of consideration for him, and unhappy that he did so at all, said, "Yes, it's my favourite, too. It makes me feel safe, I suppose. My father use to work here while I read. The place hasn’t changed. It’s as if it’s its own world, a peaceful world.” He stopped abruptly, aware that he was rambling.
“And that’s all you want?” Erik asked, watching him.
“No, of course not,” Charles said, “but all men live in desire.” He looked down at the board. “Your game, my friend.”